Sunday, August 14, 2022

Saviors, fiction by Sam Wiebe

Security must have fucked up.

He didn’t know how the girl snuck on set. But here she was, pushing her way into his trailer, rolling up her sleeve to show him her tattoo. 

“I’m so sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Chambers,” the girl said.

But you did, he thought. And now you’re going to eat up however many minutes of my time, my precious fucking prep time, telling me how much my stupid show means to you.

“I just had to meet you, Mr. Chambers—I mean Scott. I know you like your fans to call you Scott. I just had to meet you and tell you what you mean to me. And I had to help you.”

He smiled politely, thinking, Great. Here I am still hungover from last night because Carol, my on-screen mom, insisted on celebrating her last day on set. With my luck, this stupid show will get picked up for season—what? five? six?—and I’ll be seeing Carol again in eight months. Have to act more of those stupid kitchen scenes where I confide in her what a burden it is, being a teenager born with the collective powers of the Greek Pantheon. How many more years stuck in this stupid city where it rains all the goddamn time? Hollywood North my ass—

—and what was that shit the girl said about helping me?

”Girl” was a stretch. She could have been thirty, a decade older than him for all he knew. But a girl in her mannerisms, the jelly-legged way she gazed at him like he was a superior creature. A fangirl. Rail-thin and hawk-featured, her pale arms hanging out of the frayed cuffs of the grubby man’s shirt she wore.

Scott noticed the girl was holding a gun.

The tattoo on her arm was of him. A terrible likeness. Scott in the Captain Destiny uniform, cape billowing out behind him as he soared through the clouds. Christ.

She transferred the pistol to her left hand and began awkwardly rolling up the other sleeve.

“It was you that taught me to believe in myself,” she said, pausing for him to acknowledge the compliment.

“That’s very nice,” Scott said.

“Before I started watching, I was at loose ends. I admit it, I know it’s a sin, but I used to think about suicide. That’s how low I was. Then I heard about this show filmed right here in my hometown, and I started watching, and I saw you dealing with the same things I was. And everything started to hurt less, you know? It was a miracle, really. A miracle is the only way to describe it.”

Jesus, she was a fucking local.

Captain Destiny was filmed in a far-flung suburb of Vancouver. The town had one main street, one second-run theatre, eight churches, a race track, and a flea market. Part of Western Canada’s miniature Bible Belt. The town was a perfect stand-in for Smallville, Starling City, and Smith’s Landing, where Captain Destiny’s alter ego hailed from.

The locals seemed split between meth heads and Jesus freaks. This girl seemed to have claims to both camps.

On her other sleeve, the girl showed him a matching tattoo, a Kurt Cobain Jesus hanging off a wobbly-looking cross. The picture was little better than a stick figure, but each wound had been etched on Kurt’s body in glorious bright red detail. Above it, the word RE P e N T.

“It was through you that I reconnected with Him,” she said. “You saved me. And I’m here, Mr. Chambers, Scott, to do the same for you.”

Up till now, she hadn’t pointed the gun at him. The barrel had been pointed down a few feet to his side. Now she brought it up, using it to gesticulate as she spoke.

“You see,” she said, “I read up on you on the world wide web. I learned all about you. I rented the show you were on as a child. It was really good, you were really great even then.”

“Thanks,” he muttered, eyes on the gun.

“You’re welcome. I even watched the commercials you were in. The cereal one, you were very funny. You can do anything, Scott, if you put your mind to it. I hope you know that.”


“Yes. And it made me sad when I read that rumor about you. That you were—you know.”

She was blushing.

“That you were not into women. That you were--well.”

“Gay,” he said.

“Well, yes.”

Rumor. He hated to think of any part of himself as a rumor. He was proud of himself, would’ve been happy telling the world, and fuck ‘em if they didn’t want to watch his show.

But his manager had explained to him the demographics involved, the realities of show biz. “In a few years, Scottie, by all means, do what you feel is best. But your hit show is a hit because of women thirteen to thirty, and that’s a tough demo for a comic book show to hold. They want to keep certain fantasies about you,’s just how it is...”

“How it is” meant broadcasting to the world he was something he wasn’t. Just another reason he hoped the network pulled the plug soon.

She was waiting for his answer, holding the gun loosely, aimed at his knees.

Scott said, “Yeah, it’s a rumor. I’m actually seeing someone. A girl. We’re thinking of getting married, in fact.” Anything to get her out of there.

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” she said. She raised the gun towards his chest, an accusatory finger of blued steel.

“You see, Scott, I want to believe you, but I was actually at the Chateau Vancouver last month. You were doing a signing in the city, remember, and I thought I’d come down. I was hoping we’d get a chance to talk then.”

Christ. Up till then he’d thought there was no real chance she’d hurt him. He’d dealt with crazies before. Now he felt his odds plummet and knew he’d have to get himself out of this.

“I was in the lobby,” the fangirl said. “I stayed there all night. I saw you come in late with that young man, and I saw you kiss him, and I waited and then in the morning, I saw you leave, and kiss him again goodbye and listen, Scott, don’t you know how that makes Him feel?” “Him who?” he said. “Makes who feel?”

“Jesus, silly. How it makes Jesus feel.”

He looked blankly at her, this fangirl, this woman who was here to kill him. She had tears in her eyes, and she was raising the gun.

Scott Chambers fell to his knees.

“I can’t help it,” he said. “I have these thoughts.”

“They’re the devil’s thoughts, Scott.”

“I know it. But I feel so weak. Please, please help me. You were sent here to help me, right? Sent here by Him?”

He was crying—turning on the waterworks had never been difficult. Yes, he was just a kid himself, and yes, he was on a crap superhero show shot in this pissant backwater town. But he’d known since childhood, since day one, that he could deliver when it counted.

But it didn’t hurt that he was scared shitless.

“Will you help me?” he said in his best broken voice. “Will you—will you pray with me?”

It was working‑the barrel drifted downward. The girl sank to one knee, her eyes as round and luminous as the rose windows in a Gothic cathedral.

“Ask him,” she said. “We’ll both ask. He’s mighty, but he’s forgiving.”

Scott lowered his head, leaving his eyes open just enough to watch the gun. He prayed for real. Dear Lord, if you’re there, and you’re not the asshole these bigots and homophobes make you out to be...a little assistance here...

“Lord,” the girl intoned in a full, sonorous voice. “Lord, we ask that you guide Scott here—that you cleanse him—that you—”

She broke off, disturbed by the knocking on the door. The loud caffeinated tapping of Stacey, the director’s assistant.

“Hey Scott,” Stacey called out. “Sorry to disturb you. This a good time?”

He froze, not knowing if the girl would shoot him for speaking.

“Joyce wants to go over the blocking for the fight with Kid Achilles. She says fifteen minutes, if that’s okay with you.”

He looked to the girl, who  had the gun pointed at his throat. She gave no sign how she wanted him to answer.

“Scott, everything okay?” Silence for a moment. Then Stacey opened the door.

Percussion and light, then a howling pain from his scalp. The fangirl had shot him.

Blood was in his eyes and he couldn’t see much. Through the pain he could hear the woman snarling, furniture being toppled. Stacey struggled with her, wrested the gun from her hand. He heard it hit the carpet.

Scott swept his hands out, feeling for the weapon. Caught the warm barrel with his fingertips, dragged it back to where he could get his hand around the grip.

The fangirl barreled into him with a linebacker’s force. The gun went who knows where. He felt her fists on his cheeks, his eyes. He reached and grabbed for her throat and held on till she bit him.

Flailing elbows broke his feeble chokehold. He knew she was now picking up the gun. He heard her cock it. His hands flew up instinctively to his face, impotent protection from the gunshot he knew was coming.

There was a loud shhh-chunk and the sound of particleboard being smashed. Stacey hit her with a drawer from the dressing table.

A moment later the security guards  dragged the woman out, telling Scott the police are on their way, and sir, we are so, so sorry about all of this.

The set medic, Danny, treated and bandaged him. Scott asked him to describe the damage.

“It’s a deep crimson furrow,” Danny said, “still spurting rivulets of blood.” Of course, Danny would describe it poetically; he’d been haranguing Scott at Craft Services every morning to read his fucking screenplay.

“Will it leave a scar?” Scott demanded.

“There’s significant tissue damage,” Danny said. “I’m not a doctor, in fact my taking first aid was mostly for research purposes. But I think yeah, it’s a scar. Scott, I’m very sorry.”

Don’t be, Scott felt like saying. A scar! It was his ticket out of the show. No way the network would want a scarred leading man. And even if they did, he could say the trauma was too much to continue.

No more teen heart-throb. He’d be a scarred, brooding character actor—he’d be taken seriously. And off-camera he could be himself.

Scott Chambers smiled and wondered if maybe there was someone watching out for him after all.

Sam Wiebe is the award-winning author of the Wakeland novels, one of the most authentic and acclaimed detective series in Canada, including Invisible Dead, Cut You Down, and Hell and Gone. Wiebe’s other books include Never Going Back, Last of the Independents, and the Vancouver Noir anthology, which he edited. 

Monday, August 8, 2022

Owl Be Damned, fiction by Nikki Knight

A Jaye Jordan Vermont Radio Mystery

 Everybody loves a snowy owl.

 At least everybody I want to know. Nobody I want to know loves murder, though, and that sure took the joy out of Blanche’s visit to Simpson. 

 But in January in Vermont, you take what you get.

 January’s pretty ugly here. Figuratively, anyhow. Literally, it’s spectacularly beautiful, with thick, deep snow, shimmering blue skies, and flaming sunsets. As long as you don’t mind being reminded of why some cultures believe in a Hell of Cold.

 Ugly is exactly the right word for two big storms in a week, followed by a cold snap. Uglier for me, since I had to sweep that snow out of the satellite dish on the roof to keep my little radio station on the air. 

 Just another fun day of running WSV, the tiny operation I bought and took live and local again when my husband survived cancer but our marriage didn’t. My daughter is happy here, and the station is getting by…and that’s about all I want to say about it.

 I’m Jaye Jordan, by the way. Yes, my real name – people always wonder with DJs. Western PA country girl made good as a New York City jock before my life unraveled. I’m the one who just keeps going, no matter what.

 But January is wearing.

 Which is why pretty much everyone went nuts when the snowy owl showed up near the WSV transmitter shack out on Quarry Road. Anything at all to break up the monotony of shoveling, sweeping and scraping. Especially if it’s something as magnificent as a snowy owl.

 Blanche, as we inevitably christened her when birdwatcher Willard Collier pointed out that her gray-barred markings meant she was female, was the toast of the town within about fifteen minutes.   

 And my usually deserted stick (radio slang for transmitter) was the most popular hangout around, with folks driving and hiking up, coming close enough to see her – but not to scare her away.

 That Saturday afternoon, my pals and I had finished our weekly yoga class at the Community Center, when Sadie Blacklaw waved the keys to her Hummer. “C’mon. No one else will be there right now because the Patriots are the early game.”

 None of us really wanted to ride in the Hummer, a genuine military surplus one that Sadie had gotten through her many connections as Town Clerk and legendary local leader. She drives like Speed Racer on meth.

 But, Maeve, Alicia, and I definitely did want to see Blanche, and that was worth the risk.

 Too bad she wasn’t the first thing we saw when we wobbled out of the Hummer, crunching into the slushy tire and boot prints, an indistinguishable mess now two days after the latest storm. 

 No, while Blanche was perched on the corrugated-metal roof of the shack, her feathers fluffed up by the breeze, her vivid orange eyes glowing with something that sure seemed like annoyance, but the attention-getter was the guy on the ground.

 He was crumpled onto a drift at the edge of the lot, half on his side, one hand reaching toward the shack. It was Willard Collier, the birdwatcher, who’d been hiking up every day from his house a half-mile away. And I was pretty sure he was dead.

 “Call George!” Sadie said to Alicia, referring to her husband, Police Chief George Orr. “You’re still current on CPR, right, Jaye?”

 “Yeah.” I kept up my certification because of my tween daughter. Mom thing. If you have it, you won’t need it.

 I’ve never been so glad that it was her weekend with her dad. 

 “Good. Me too.” Sadie gave me a shove. “Let’s go. Two-man is better than one.”

 “What about me?” Maeve asked.

 “Reverend, you do your thing.” 

 Maeve, the Reverend Collins, is indeed a duly ordained Episcopal priest, despite enviable skills with profanity, makeup, and drinking. I’m Jewish, but I’m pretty sure she has a direct line to Whoever’s up there.

 As Sadie and I turned the guy over, his camera fell out of his hand, skidding over a patch of frozen coffee to smack into the thermos.

 First time in history coffee didn’t make things better.   

 Something about the camera didn’t look right to me, but it wasn’t the time. 

 “I’ll start with breaths,” I offered.

 “No, you’re stronger. You do compressions.” 

 Without even a blink, Sadie reached in and cleared the airway, and got down to it.

 I started compressions. I’m not just stronger. I’m bigger – a lot taller than most of my friends, at six feet. 

 We reached the first pause, where you’re supposed to check the person and see if they’re breathing on their own.

 “Nothing.” Sadie shook her head.

 Maeve, who’d been quietly watching from a few feet away, moved a little closer as we started again.

 I heard her soft, clear voice beginning the prayers for the dying just before the siren’s wail tore through the cold, still air.



 That evening, I was back in the studio, finally warm again thanks to double layers of fleece and most of a pot of coffee. I’d just finished a break and started the standard nightly spin of “You’re the Inspiration,” this time for a milestone anniversary couple, when Alicia Orr appeared.

 Many weekdays, she drops by for a coffee after working late at the local bank, where she’s a vice president. Sometimes weekends, too, especially when her husband, Police Chief George, is busy, as he sure was tonight. But her troubled expression was different.

 I didn’t remark on her new coral down coat and harmonizing striped fleece, which made her ebony skin glow. She’d wear it again – and it’s better to give a compliment when people will hear it. 

 With the coffee poured, another pot brewing, and the next song (overwrought Celine Dion for a depressed dump-ee) started, we settled in for a talk.  

 “Nasty thing today at the shack,” she said neutrally, though her expression wasn’t neutral at all.


 “Probably just sad, yeah.”

 I waited. 

 “Did you sense anything off?” she asked.

 “Um…” The camera hadn’t looked right to me, and we’d all been a little bothered by the way Willard Collier’s daughter had so coolly said she was glad her dad died doing what he loved.

 Everyone grieves differently, and it’s not necessarily a sign of anything.

 That’s what I had very firmly told myself.

 After all, some people can’t understand how I can joke about getting my husband through cancer only to get dumped, but humor keeps me from harming anyone. Probably myself. So I wasn’t going to judge. 

 Still, I’d never seen anyone’s eyes light up at the sight of their relative on a gurney,nd I’d spent enough time in the chemo suite to see a whole range of reactions. 

 Alicia watched me, and nodded.

 “Here’s the deal, Jaye,” she said, speaking slowly and carefully. “I know something that makes me suspicious. But I know it because I work at the bank, and I can’t break confidentiality.” 

 “And the Chief…” I started.

 “Will very rightly do nothing on the basis of his wife’s gut.” She shrugged. “I’m not thrilled with him, but he can’t open a criminal case because I’ve got a bad feeling and the daughter acted like she’d won the lottery.”

 “True.” I took a sip of my coffee, thought about what I’d seen when Sadie and I started CPR. “What if there was something inconsistent in the scene?”

 “Like what?”

 “Like the camera was not set up for what he was supposed to be doing.”

 Her eyes lit up. “Really?”

 “My uncle’s hobby is wildlife photography, and I know just enough to be dangerous. He explained his new camera to Ryan and me when he was up here at Thanksgiving.”

 “And poor Mr. Collier’s camera?”

 “Didn’t look right to me. But I’m not the expert. Why don’t I call Uncle Edgar and run it past him…and then get back to you?”

 “I like it.” She drank a little more of her coffee. “Thanks, Jaye.”

 “Glad to. It’s always good to have an excuse to talk to Uncle Edgar.”

 She smiled, knowing I was telling the absolute truth.

 Alicia stayed for a bit more coffee, and a little relaxing talk of moisturizers and long underwear, the two main topics of discussion for women in Vermont this time of year. Once she left, I picked up the phone.

 “Jacks!” Uncle Edgar roared. He’s the only person on earth allowed to call me that, as the closest thing I have to a father. I’m the closest he has to a daughter, since he had two sons with Aunt Mellie before she ran off with the urologist. (Don’t go there.)

 “Hey. How are you and Mom liking January in Palm Fountains?” He and my mother retired at roughly the same time, and they’re now enjoying a very late adolescent rebellion as a brother-and-sister act in their Florida senior development.

 “A little chilly. Only seventy yesterday.”

 “I think I hate you.” 

 “Well, I envy you. You have a gorgeous snowy owl up there. And you’ve only sent me one picture?”

 “I’ll get some more.” I am not the family photog, but I absolutely did owe him pics. 

 “You’d better. Maybe Judy and I fly up for a quick visit.”

 “We would love that.” Mostly. I didn’t even have to cross my fingers. “But I wanted to ask you something. A man collapsed and died near the shack earlier today, and-”

 “Oh, that’s too bad, Jacks. You all okay?

 “It was sad, but we’re fine. It’s just…”

 “You think there’s something hinky?” Uncle Edgar did thirty years with the Mineral County Sherriff’s Department. I could practically hear the click as his cop radar came on.

 “Well, I’m not a hundred percent sure, but his camera looked wrong to me, and I think I know why.”

 “Tell me exactly what it looked like…”

 I did. He agreed with me.

 Alicia was glad to hear it…and so was Chief George. 


 Sunday afternoon found us once again at the shack. This time, it was Maeve, freshly changed from vestments to fleece, picking us up in her old green SUV for a much safer trip, even if Sadie groused a little about it having less power on the hill than the Hummer did. 

 Blanche was back to the front of the shack, enjoying a patch of sun. 

 Enjoying more than that. 

 “Get the pic, Jaye!” Sadie called from the backseat. “She’s eating!”

 I’d had my cellphone ready because you never know when you might get a good shot of Blanche. I didn’t really want one with a rodent tail sticking out of her beak, though – that was more Uncle Edgar’s speed.

 As we got out of the SUV, Blanche finished her meal and shot me a glare. 

 I’d have to apologize to her later. 

 Everyone who wasn’t a vole had more serious things to worry about just then. The Simpson cruiser was on the other side of the little gravel parking area, and Chief George was leaning against it, just watching Blanche and observing the scene with his usual former NYPD cool and intensity. It’s always fun to watch him, and reactions to him, since most Vermont towns do not have a six-foot-three Black guy in a leather trenchcoat as their top cop. 

 This appeared to be pretty much the usual owl fan club: a small knot of local folks at the back of the parking area, standing and observing, or occasionally taking a picture, all trying to be as unobtrusive (to Blanche) as possible.

 Except for the woman at the front of the lot.

 She couldn’t be unobtrusive if her life depended on it.

 Standing by her white SUV, wrapped once again in her urban-fashionable silver puffer, her expensively highlighted brown hair wafting lightly in the wind, Jennee Collier (two N’s and three E’s please, she’d said yesterday as Chief George asked her whether her late father had been in poor health) was placing a bouquet, down on one knee in the chunky slush.

 I was honestly surprised that she was willing to get parking lot slop on her expensive yoga pants. Jennee was off in a lot of ways: that stupid white SUV that showed every bit of slush and muck, clothes always expensive and impractical, and hair and makeup far too much for Simpson. I’d always idly wondered how she afforded it on a teacher’s aide’s salary, and just figured there was family money around somewhere.

 Now I suspected something else.

 “What’s going on?” Maeve whispered.

 “Wait and see,” Alicia replied, sending her husband a glance and getting a nod. “Must have gotten his warrant.”

 Sadie’s eyes widened a little, and she smiled. “Looks like Blanche’s lunch isn’t the only show.”  

 Jennee stood, and glanced back at what had probably been an appreciative, or at least neutral, audience when she knelt. Not so much now. Her carefully sad face changed at the sight of Chief George and Alicia, hardening into something else for an instant before she snapped back into reality-TV mournfulness, complete with quivering lip. Maeve probably recognized the brand and color of the shimmery nude lip gloss; I just knew it was better than the usual drugstore stuff.

 “Ms. Collier.” Chief George didn’t raise his voice; it just carried across the parking lot in the chilly air. 

 “What?” She tried for innocent. “Is there something else? I’m just paying tribute to Dad where he had the heart attack.”

 She carefully wiped an eye. There was no actual moisture that I could see.

 A little too obvious, I thought. 

 “About that, Ms. Collier.” Chief George took a step toward her. 

 She stepped back. “I didn’t do anything.”

 Her brittle voice gave her away.

 “I’ve seen the bank records, ma’am. Your father found out what you’d been doing, didn’t he?”

 “No! He said I could use the money for whatever I needed.” She looked at Alicia, with a snort. “Shows what you know.”

 Alicia shrugged, not taking the bait. 

 “He collapsed from a heart attack while he was out taking pictures,” Jenee said, nodding firmly like a determined toddler.

 “Not with that camera, he wasn’t,” I snapped. I’d had enough attitude.

 Jennee’s eyes widened.

 “It probably looked good to you when you put it together. But it was the wrong lens. That was a big zoom lens. It’s for distance shots.”

 She made a flapping wave at the shack. “That’s a distance.”

 “Not that kind of distance,” I said quietly. “Any decent photog wouldn’t even bring that lens out for this.”

 “Well, he wasn’t that good-”

 “He was amazing,” Sadie said. “I have one of his pictures of a great blue heron in my living room. Jaye’s right. He would never have used the wrong lens.”

 Chief George unclipped the cuffs from his belt.

 Jennee let out a howl.

 That was enough for Blanche.

 The giant owl took off with a bloodcurdling cry, and strafed toward us.

 Everyone ducked. 

 Jennee shrieked again, and didn’t duck far enough, because we all heard Blanche’s talons ripping the back of that silver puffer as she flew past.

 For the next minute or so, most of us were busy: the Chief helping Jennee up – and then hooking her up, Alicia watching them, Maeve making sure Sadie didn’t fall on the slick parking lot, and Sadie trying to shake free. I was the only one who got a good look at Blanche as she landed.

 The owl was maybe twenty feet away from me, and she shot me a sharp glance with those big orange peepers. I managed to whip out the phone in time…and clicked off a couple of pics. Who knew if they’d be good, but she was so close I had to try.

 As we all straightened up and dusted ourselves off, Alicia elbowed me.

 “Thank you for being a friend.” 

 “Blanche too.” I grinned. “Love the Golden Girls reference.”

 “Just don’t sing it.”


 Back at the station, a couple of hours later, I sent my hard-won shots to Uncle Edgar. 

 “Nice pics.”

 “Nice info on the lens.”

 “So what was it?”

 “Money. Seems she’d been quietly stealing from dad for a while, and when they went to move money from savings into a joint account, dad found out. He covered for her, but it was obvious to Alicia.”

 “And, of course, Alicia couldn’t tell you.”

 “Nope. Confidentiality.”

 “But the lens was enough to get a warrant for the records, right?” he asked.

 “Yep. And run a quick tox screen.”

 “Fentanyl?” he asked.

  “That’s the one. Apparently fed it to him in his breakfast and dumped him at the shack.” I sighed. “Too many opioids are too easy to get around here.”

 “Everywhere, Jacks.”

 We were both silent for a moment, as I thanked the Lord that he’d gotten out before the worst of it, and I suspect he did too.

 “Good thing you’ve got an eye,” he said finally.

  I laughed. “I just remember stuff.”

 “Got a pretty good shot of your owl, too, Jacks.”

 “Guess so.”

 A few minutes later, after we hung up, I looked at the picture again. I’d caught her with one eye closed. Winking. 

 As usual, Blanche was smarter than the rest of us. 



Nikki Knight describes herself as an Author/Anchor/Mom…not in that order. An award-winning weekend anchor at 1010 WINS Radio in New York, she writes short stories and novels, including LIVE, LOCAL, AND DEAD, a Vermont Radio Mystery from Crooked Lane, and as Kathleen Marple Kalb, the Ella Shane Historical Mysteries for Kensington. Her stories are in several anthologies, and she was a 2022 Derringer Award finalist. She, her husband, and son live in a Connecticut house owned by their cat.

Monday, August 1, 2022

The Baltic Dry Index, fiction by Michael Niemann

It was well after dinner, and I waited for Melbourne in my hotel room. “I should be there no later than ten,” he’d said. When midnight came, I was getting antsy and stepped onto the rusty balcony. The hotel wasn’t in the tourist quarter of Djibouti City. People were lounging on stoops along the street below. It was April, and I suppose too hot inside. Yesterday’s rain reflected a luminescent sky in the potholes. A moped sputtered toward the harbor.  

There was no sign of Melbourne anywhere.

Of course, he could’ve been delayed at the airport. Traveling with multiple passports in 2009 required a bit of discipline. By then, even small countries could receive the passenger information transmitted by the airlines right after departure. Checking in with one passport and presenting the other upon arrival could raise eyebrows, not that the immigration authorities of Djibouti were known for their facial expressions. Besides, Melbourne had come and gone so often these past months, he probably was on a first-name basis with whoever swiped his documents through the scanner. 

I went back inside and stared at my phone. Melbourne’s protocol was, “Don’t text me. I’ll text you. Unless it’s an emergency.” Trouble was, his definition of emergency was as flexible as the sealant bulging from the frame of the balcony door. He could be frantic when the situation was perfectly normal but also calm even though circumstances had careened out of control. 

Better give him more time. Melbourne could get rather unpleasant if he were disturbed at the wrong moment. That left me sitting in my stifling room with a useless air-conditioner. I needed a drink.

 I went downstairs. Out on the street, a neon sign flashed in the distance. Only the letters ‘B’ and ‘R’ were illuminated. I figured the chances of the middle letter not being an ‘A’ were pretty slim. As I approached, I saw pale light spilling from the door, illuminating drinking patrons outside.

I heard rapid steps behind me. I stopped dead in my tracks. The steps didn’t and someone bumped into me. I spun around, ready to grab whoever was there.

He was a stocky Somali, startled by the sudden impact. He raised his hands, palms out, and said, “Pardon.”

“What do you want?”

 “Cherchez-vous Monsieur Melbourne?”

“Do you know where he is?”

He turned and pointed to the opposite end of the street.

“Where is Melbourne?” I said.

“Oui, oui. Monsieur Melbourne.” He took my arm to coax me toward the intersection. I pushed him away. He let go and marched toward the corner. The take-it-or-leave-it attitude told me he was for real.

He brought me to the Boulevard Hassan Goulet, a main thoroughfare of Djibouti. Even at this hour, car and bus traffic was thick. I asked if Melbourne had sent him.

“Monsieur Melbourne est mort,” he said.


Melbourne dead? My throat turned dry as dust. It made no sense. He was a small trader, putting together deals with other people’s money for mutual profits. He wouldn’t show up on anyone’s radar because he was a small fish in a vast ocean. Had he started hanging out with sharks? 

A deep breath helped calm the rat’s nest of thoughts zinging through my brain. 

A while ago, Melbourne had come across an esoteric item called the Baltic Dry Index. Outside the world of transoceanic shipping, nobody knew about it or couldn’t have cared less if they did. The Baltic Dry Index denoted the cost of shipping dry bulk goods across the oceans. It was calculated daily, based on the cost for representative routes and ship sizes.

The thing that intrigued him most was something called Forward Freight Agreements, basically a way to bet on the value of the Baltic Dry Index at some point in the future.

“You can get in on the action without ever actually having to ship anything,” he’d said. “You put a little money down, and with the right trades, it’s an outstanding opportunity.”

“For what?” I said.

“To make money.”

“On freight futures? You’ve got to be kidding. You’re more likely to lose your shirt.”

That was back at my club in London. I looked at the three empty glasses in front of me. My usual dose was two Scotch, neat, water on the side. Three, when the mood was right. It was often right with Melbourne.

“Listen, old chum,” he’d said. “I know I’ve spun plenty of yarns, and you’ve been more than kind to indulge me over the years. But this ain’t no yarn. I’ve got a plan.”

I should’ve paid my tab then and gone home. 

Instead, I ordered another Scotch, neat, water on the side, and listened to him. Which is how I ended up in Djibouti, standing by a busy road, wondering how he could be dead.

The Somali hailed a cab and held open the door. I suppose I could’ve declined, but I needed to know what happened to Melbourne. I got in. He joined me and told the driver, “Hotel Kempinski.”


The Hotel Kempinski hovered like a mirage above the ocean. Built at the tip of the peninsula that was the city of Djibouti, it invited comparisons to minor British palaces. 

Despite the hour—past two in the morning—it was lit up as if heads of state with large entourages were about to arrive. The taxi stopped near an entrance. The Somali got out. I scrambled after him. He pointed to the cab driver. 

Of course. I had to pay. 

Sensing my inclination to marvel at the columns, chandeliers, and gilded reception desks inside, he grabbed my arm firmly and pulled me along.  About a mile later, he pushed me through a double door into what looked like a somber gathering. 

Some twenty or so attendees—mostly men—stood around. Africans, Arabs, and some from farther afield. The sideboard held plenty of alcohol. But for the missing coffin, it could’ve been a wake.

The swoosh of the door stopped the hum of conversations. The gathering focused on me, didn’t see anything exciting, and went back to talking. The stocky Somali let go of me. I stood by myself for a long moment until a Black woman came toward me. She had dark eyes and dark hair in a medium length cut that looked scruffy enough to have been expensive. Her beige suit was expertly tailored. Under the jacket she wore a taupe blouse with a yellow silk scarf, quite the splash of color in an otherwise drab room.

“Did you know Melbourne well?” she said, eyebrows raised. Her American drawl was unmistakable.

“As well as anyone, I suppose.” I looked around. “And you are?”

“Janice Franklin.”

“A friend of Melbourne’s?”

“We’re all friends of Melbourne.”

“What happened to him? He phoned me two days ago, just before I left London. He sounded fine.”

“Oh, it was rather sudden. Car accident.”


“This morning…” She checked her watch. “…uh, yesterday, around ten.”

“And all of you knew him?” I said.

The woman nodded. “Some better than others.” A smile played around the corners of her mouth.

“Where’s his body?”

“In the morgue. The funeral is scheduled for eleven today.”

“That’s fast. Wasn’t there an investigation?”

“Of what? A car hit him. The driver got away. Nobody saw anything. In this climate it’s best to get a body into the ground fast.”

A hit-and-run? No investigation? That all seemed a bit hurried. But it was hot. I suppose the morgue couldn’t hold on to bodies forever.

“You’re a long way from home. What was your connection to Melbourne?” I said. 

“I had a professional interest in his doings.”

“Trader? Investor?”

“Not quite. But you are. Both trader and investor. Word is you backed his scheme.”

“Not really. I had some spare pounds and thought I’d play along. It was really his show.”

She raised her eyebrows, indicating she knew more than she was letting on.

“Did anyone inform his family?” I said.

“Did he have any? I found no next-of-kin information among his possessions.”

“So you knew him well enough to have access to his things?”

The smile returned but she didn’t take the bait. Instead, she said, “Will you come to the funeral?”

“Yes, of course. Where will it be?”

“At the European Cemetery.”

I thanked her and stepped to the credenza. They had my favorite Scotch. 

A tall Somali joined me. I nodded and added a splash of water.

“You are Melbourne’s friend from London?” he said. He sounded more Oxford than Mogadishu.

I turned and looked him over. Dark eyes, oval face sporting a smile, close-cropped hair, no beard. His suit was even finer than the woman’s. Steel gray with a hint of a pinstripe, made of the thinnest wool, perfect for this climate. Under the jacket, a blindingly white shirt. No tie.

“I am,” I said. “Who are you?”

“I’m Dawal. When did you arrive?”

“In the afternoon.”

“How are you liking Djibouti?”

“It’s fine so far. How did you know Melbourne?” I said.

“I represent certain interests. Melbourne had dealings with us.”

“What kind of interests?”

“The maritime kind.”

“Oh. Shipping and such?” I said.

His smile dimmed by a couple of watts. “Tangentially, yes. Didn’t Melbourne tell you about us?”

“Uh, no. Should he have?”

“Yes, since you backed him. He owes us a fair amount of money.”

“And who is ‘us’ again?”

The smile returned. “Certain Somali interests.”

I took a sip of my drink and pretended to savor the whisky while sorting out the new information. Somalia hadn’t been a country for almost twenty years. After Siad Barré was ousted, the country devolved into a patchwork of competing authorities based on clan allegiances. Puntland and Somaliland had split off completely. What Somali interests could there be?

“Tell me more about those Somali interests,” I said.

Dawal cocked his head. “You aren’t working for the British government?”

The cat was out of the bag. What had Melbourne gotten himself into?

“I can assure you I’m not. I’m a trader. Like Melbourne.”

Dawal nodded. “I represent a number of Somali entrepreneurs.”

“Of the maritime kind?”

“Yes.” He smiled benevolently.

“The kind of maritime entrepreneurs the rest of the world calls pirates?”

“A very unfortunate term. They call themselves the Somali Coast Guard.”

“That may have been accurate when they chased Chinese fishing trawlers from their waters, but holding cargo vessels hostage for ransom changed the nature of the activity, didn’t it?”

His smile widened. “That’s what Melbourne said as well. He proposed an alternate means of generating profits, involving something called the Baltic Dry Index.”

The pleasant buzz of my drink vanished. 

As Dawal told it, Melbourne had proposed a deal identical to what he’d promised me. Piracy had driven up shipping costs. The Baltic Dry Index was climbing. He took my money to bet against that, hoping piracy would vanish and prices would come down. A risky bet, yes, but plenty of warships had come to stop piracy in the Gulf of Aden, so it wasn’t crazy risky.

Apparently, he’d taken the pirates’ money as well, promising them riches if they stopped attacking the shipping routes. That was crazy risky.

“You were his partner, no?” Dawal said.

“Not as such. We worked together on occasion, but we were never partners.”

“But you gave him his capital.”

“I did not. I invested a modest sum and wanted to see how he was doing. I’m in the same position as you. He took my money, and now he’s dead.”

The smile never left his face. Either he had a perennially sunny disposition, or was a tough negotiator. “Then we have a mutual interest in finding out where the money is now.”

The Somali who’d brought me to the Kempinski appeared by his side.

“Please accept our hospitality at the Sheraton Hotel,” Dawal said. “We’ve taken the liberty of moving your things already. This is Siyaad. He’ll accompany you.” 


The Sheraton was much nicer than my previous accommodation. I slept reasonably well, despite the fact that my relocation had been involuntary and Siyaad was sitting outside my door. At nine o’clock, there was a loud knock. I got up, put on the hotel robe, and checked. Siyaad smiled and said I had thirty minutes to get ready. Since I didn’t travel with funeral clothing, a shower and a fresh shirt had to do.

I grabbed a coffee and a croissant from the breakfast buffet before Siyaad hustled me out of the hotel and into a waiting car. The driver peeled out and quickly merged onto the Boulevard du Général de Gaulle. 

The New European Cemetery was initially created for the Foreign Legion, later it served Allied forces as a final resting place during World War II. Now ordinary Europeans were interred there. 

The driver drove past a chapel and stopped a hundred yards further near a freshly dug hole. The crowd from the wake milled about, waiting. 

Off to the side stood a trio that included Janice Franklin, who wore another fetching outfit. The same couldn’t be said for the two men. The sandy-haired fellow had MI-6 written all over him. The other man with the pencil mustache was probably a French spook. 

She walked over to me. “I see you’ve made some local friends. That went fast for someone claiming he didn’t know what Melbourne was up to. “

“They reached out. I couldn’t really decline.”

She raised her eyebrows again. “And yet you insist you didn’t know what Melbourne was up to?”

“He had a plan, but I didn’t know about these local connections.”


“Are you CIA? Your companions sure look like spooks.”

“Treasury Department, FinCEN.”


“Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. Looks like you’re in trouble. Tell me what you and Melbourne were up to and I can get you out of here.”

“I would, believe me, but I don’t know what he had going.”

 “When did you last speak with Melbourne?”

“I haven’t seen Melbourne in weeks. He phoned me two days ago, said he’d meet me at the hotel last night.”

“And he didn’t show.”

“No, instead Siyaad brought me to the Kempinski. Why is everyone after Melbourne?”

“He showed up, made a lot of waves, and plenty of enemies.”

“Who are his enemies?” I said.

Her head motioned to the attendees. “All of them.” 

“I thought they were his friends.”

Franklin smiled again. “I’m afraid you’re it.”

“Why all this enmity?” I said. “He’s too small a fish to roil this much ocean.”

“Stop pretending,” she said. “A lot of people want their money back. They think you know where it is.”

“What? That’s preposterous.”

My protestations barely covered the panic that was pushing my pulse up.

Fortunately, a grizzled European wearing priestly garb emerged from the chapel. Two African altar boys accompanied him, one carrying a cross, the other energetically swinging an ornate censer. Behind them, four men carried a plain coffin. They approached the grave, stopped, and placed the coffin on planks lying across the hole.

The prayer was offered in Latin. A few attendees bowed their heads; most stared off into the distance. After the rites, there was mumbling among the crowd. The four men lowered the casket into the hole and shoveled dirt on top. A loud squeak made me turn. A fifth man was pushing a wheelbarrow sloshing with concrete. He dumped it on top of the dirt.

“That’s to stop grave robbers,” Franklin said into my ear.

“What’s there to rob? He didn’t bring the family silver.”

“It’s what they do here.”

I thought about that. The concrete signaled finality. Too neat an end.

“Who’s paying for all this?” I said.

Franklin seemed surprised. “Aren’t you? I mean, you were his friend.”

“I arrived less than twenty-four hours ago. How could I have organized a funeral in that time?”

She shrugged and handed me her card. “In case you want to come clean.”

The priest, having completed his duties, repaired to the chapel. The altar boys followed him, the cross now resting on the shoulder of one and the censer dangling from the hand of the other, the incense all burned up.

I needed information, so I left Franklin and followed the priest into the chapel. The boys had deposited their paraphernalia and were about to leave. I nodded to them and gave each five hundred Francs. Their eyes lit up, and they dashed outside. 

The priest watched them leave and said, “That wasn’t necessary. They already got paid.” 

“It’s a custom where I come from,” I said. “And they were glad.”

“Are you Mr. Melbourne’s friend from London?”

“I am. I only just arrived and can barely make sense of it all. Who paid for the funeral? Any of the people outside?”

He shook his head. “It was an anonymous donation. I suspect none of the folks outside would spend a penny on Melbourne.” He gave me a curious look. “All this must’ve been a shock for you. Take a stroll along Siesta beach. The fresh air will do you good.”


Back at the Sheraton, I picked up a tourist map and told Siyaad I wanted to go for a walk. He got off his chair. 

“How about I go alone,” I said. “I promise I won’t skip town.”

He nodded, but followed me anyway. I headed past the French Consulate toward Siesta beach. Siyaad kept a respectful distance. 

I didn’t believe for a moment that the priest’s suggestion came from his pastoral concerns for my wellbeing. Someone had asked him to point me toward this beach. But who? Everyone I’d met so far was after Melbourne. The pirates and the spooks were on the same side, albeit for different reasons.

The sky was overcast and the salty breeze from the ocean was pleasant. The beach seemed forlorn. Maybe it was off-season. A few kids in the water, a handful of folks strolling along the promenade, and three men sitting on benches, reading newspapers. 

The anonymous donation for the funeral occupied my mind. Who was the unknown benefactor? Although Melbourne had spent some time in Djibouti, it didn’t seem long enough to forge that kind of a friendship.

I reached the second man hidden behind a newspaper. Instead of French headlines, I saw the International Herald Tribune. The headlines were a day old. As I continued, I heard a whisper. 

“Notre Dame du Bon Pasteur.”

Not sure I had heard right, I stopped.

“Keep moving and lose the tail.”

The man got up, folding the paper. I only saw his back. A rotund guy, brown slacks, beige shirt, and a straw hat. Not anyone I knew. He crossed the Route De La Siesta and disappeared into an alley. I continued along the beach while checking my tourist map.

Notre Dame du Bon Pasteur turned out to be a Catholic cathedral only a few blocks away. I strolled along the promenade a while longer. The next alley looked like a good escape and I made a dash for it. 

A walled-in courtyard with an open gate looked promising but it had no other exit. I followed a narrow path outside one of the walls and turned left at a T-junction a hundred yards on. The path split into a warren of lanes full of small houses and shacks. An open garage offered a decent hiding place. I squeezed past the pickup inside and crouched by the front bumper.

Moments later, I heard steps and hard breathing. The steps slowed, the breathing didn’t. I counted on Siyaad not searching here. Any reasonable European would’ve continued on to the Boulevard de la République to disappear in the traffic. That’s where Siyaad headed.

I squeezed back outside, backtracked to the promenade, and hurried north to the cathedral. 


Notre Dame du Bon Pasteur was a boxy cathedral with a short transept and an ornate semi-circular entrance at the nave end. I entered through a side door. The interior was dark and cool. The altar stood at the center of the transept, rows of pews occupied the nave. Three carved confessionals sat along one side, a string of votive candle stands glowed along the other.

A smattering of faithful knelt in the pews. None of them looked like the portly man with the newspaper. I walked past the confessionals toward the far exit. At the last one, I heard another whisper, telling me to confess my sins.

I knelt on the priedieu and stared through the wooden grate. Even though the lighting was dim, I could make out the person sitting inside.

It was Melbourne.

“Hullo, old chum,” he said. “It’s good to see you. Sorry for all the trouble.”

“What the hell, Melbourne?” I said, louder than warranted. “Is that your idea of a joke? You tell me to come. You don’t show. Next thing I’m at your funeral?”

“Keep it down, please. I’m really sorry, but things were getting out of hand. The Somalis want their money back, and the spooks think I’m in league with the pirates. I had to disappear.”

“Good god, Melbourne. Have you any sense at all?”

He said nothing.

“Where is my money?”

“Safe and sound. I’ll pay you back with profits.”

“And the Somalis’ money?”

“The same.”

“What about the Baltic Dry Index?”

“You were right, I would’ve lost my shirt on the forward freight trades.”

“But you took the Somali’s money anyway?”

“Hey, they had stolen it first. Besides, I got them to stop hijacking more ships. The spooks should be grateful rather than hounding me.”

“And the warships in the gulf had nothing to do with that? Give me a break.”

“That’s neither here nor there. I need your help to get out of Djibouti posthaste.”

“You need help? What about me? Everybody here thinks I’m in on your scam. The Somalis have me under house arrest.”

“Their alliance is as creaky as an old chair. If you pay off Dawar, he’ll let you go.”

“With what? Remember, you took my money too.”

“Let me make some arrangements. Where are the pirates holding you?”

“The Sheraton.”

“Go there and wait for my call.”


Dawal was waiting for me at the Sheraton. He wasn’t smiling. 

“Don’t fuck with me. I know you were in on Melbourne’s scam. Until we get our money back, you’ll stay here. No more strolls along the beach.”

“Let’s get one thing straight. I wasn’t in on anything Melbourne did. He owes me money too. I want to help, but confining me to this room will make that difficult. How much of a down payment would you require to let me go? I might be able to free up a not insubstantial sum.”

“I can’t be bribed,” he said, but the hint of a smile on his face belied the fervor of his words.

“Who’s talking about a bribe? It’s a down payment. An expression of goodwill on my part in exchange for being able to go and find out where the rest of the money is.”

The smile grew wider. 

“I suppose two hundred thousand dollars could assuage my doubts. Mind you, he owes the consortium around a million, so it is indeed only a down payment.”

I returned the smile. “Of course. I’m committed to recovering all of the funds Melbourne took. Give me a day or two, and everything should be squared away.”

The smile on Dawar’s face faded a little. As he left the room, he turned and said, “Siyaad will remain here. If you need to leave, he will accompany you. No more escapes.”

I nodded and locked the door. Over the room phone, I ordered lunch and a beer. Since it was on Dawar’s tab, I went for a full meal. Who knew when I would eat again?

The dessert was half gone when the phone rang. It was Melbourne.

“How did it go with Dawar?” he said.

“He is amenable to a down payment of five hundred thousand.”

“What? The guy is nuts. That’s half of what I took from them.”

“Well, in light of the circumstances walking away with half might be your best option. By the way, that half also includes my investment.”

“If I’m only getting half, so should you. Shared pain.”

“You forget that you didn’t put up any money to start with. So whatever you clear is pure profit. But more importantly, how are you getting the funds to me?”

“Easy, it’s in bearer bonds, stashed in a secure location.”

“And how will I get it?”

“I’ll messenger you the key. We’ll leave town first thing tomorrow.”


An hour later, I heard the expected knock. I opened the door. A young Arab carrying a helmet and a messenger bag stood there, an envelope in his hands. Siyaad regarded him with suspicion. I accepted the delivery and closed the door.

The envelope contained two keys and a piece of paper with an address. I checked the address on my map. A place on an unfashionable side street of Avenue Cheik Houmet. After stuffing some clean clothes into my briefcase, I left the room. Siyaad raised his eyebrows.

“A small errand,” I said. “No need to come along.”

He followed me anyway. I climbed into the first taxi downstairs, and Siyaad scrambled in after me. 

The address was an old hotel, three stories, the windows fronted by rusty balconies connected by fire stairs, a dim reception area with a threadbare rug, a sleepy concierge, and a single elevator next to the staircase. I ignored the elevator and took the stairs, two steps at a time. Siyaad hustled after me. On the third floor, I found the proper door, unlocked it, slipped inside and locked Siyaad out. 

“Sorry,” I said.” This is private business. I won’t be long.”

It was a sparse room. The search took only a moment. A wall safe was hidden inside the closet. I inserted the other key, unlocked the safe door, and found bearer bonds amounting to five hundred thousand dollars.

Once securely hidden between the underwear in my briefcase, I turned on the radio, opened the door to the balcony and stepped outside. It creaked precariously, but the descent to the street was quick. The security gate at the bottom could only be opened from the inside, which suited me just fine. I ran to the main street and hailed a cab. 

An hour later, I rested comfortably in an equally forgettable hotel near the airport. My first call was to the airline to confirm my return flight to London. My second one was to alert Janice Franklin that Melbourne was not dead and would be at the airport the next morning at ten.


I got to the airport early and checked in for the flight to Istanbul with connection to London. Once through passport control, I was safe. I settled in the bar. It was a little early for a Scotch, neat, water on the side, but I needed to take the edge off. It had been a busy twenty-four hours. A rotund man wearing brown slacks, a beige shirt and a straw hat sat at a corner table. 

I walked over.

“Do you really think a few towels wrapped around your midriff will fool anyone?” I said.

“It worked so far. Did Dawal give you any trouble?”

“Nah. You were right. He was eager to get his hands on the money.”

I checked my watch. Almost ten. Dawal and his men wouldn’t make it through passport control, but Agent Franklin would. 

“Can’t wait to get out of here,” he said. “Some day we’ll look back at this and laugh.”

“I doubt that very much.”

A quartet of gendarmes had entered the departure hall, followed by Janice Franklin. They crowded around us. The sergeant told Melbourne that he was under arrest for financial crimes. His colleagues pulled him up and took off his sunglasses. 

“Did you tip them off?” Melbourne said.

“They would’ve found out anyway. Be nice to Agent Franklin and maybe she’ll cut you a deal.”

I reached for his bag. Franklin had the same idea. We both got a hold of the handle. 

She gave me a cold look. “Don’t mess with a treasury agent.” 

Mindful of the police watching, I let go.

Franklin took Melbourne’s bag and opened it. The contents looked just like the papers in Melbourne’s hotel safe.

Melbourne smiled sadly. “I’d have been better off trusting Dawal.”

The gendarmes took him away, but Franklin stayed.

“I’ll spare you the cavity search,” she said. “But I’m going to confiscate your bag too. It contains material evidence.” 

“On the basis of what? I have nothing of value in there.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

“How about you show me an ID and a warrant?”

“You should be glad they didn’t arrest you too.” She held her phone in her hand. “I can easily change that. The prisons here aren’t a lot of fun.”

She took the bag and left. 

I boarded and ended up sitting next to the British spook I’d seen at the funeral.

“I could’ve used your help,” I said. “Since when do you let American agents run roughshod over British subjects?”

“What American agents?”

“Janice Franklin. She confiscated my briefcase just now.”

“Is that what she was doing?” He laughed. “Crazy woman. When she first showed up here a couple of months ago, she was going on and on, Federal Agent this and Treasury that. Very convincing. But I checked with London. She isn’t any kind of agent.”

“She isn’t? What the hell? I liked that briefcase.”

I went to the restroom. Behind the locked door, I pulled up my shirt. The bearer bonds were sticking to my damp skin, and I couldn’t afford to have them disintegrate. I folded them carefully and stuck them in my jacket pocket. 

Who’d ever heard of a treasury agent in the field wearing a taupe blouse with a yellow silk scarf?

Michael Niemann writes crime fiction. His Valentin Vermeulen Thrillers are published by Coffeetown Press. The third in the series, Illegal Holdings, won the Silver Falchion for best thriller at Killer Nashville 2019. His stories have appeared in the MWA Anthology Vengeance, edited by Lee Child, in MystericalE, and as Kindle Singles. He lives in Southern Oregon.